Did the researchers compare the carbon impact of technologies like smartphones to the impact of older services smartphones have, at least in part, replaced? For example, we rarely develop film anymore. Most of our photos are taken digitally. Manufacturing and developing film consumes energy and resources too, to say nothing of the impact of the chemicals required to develop it. Likewise, music stored on a smartphone or in the cloud replaces, to at least some degree, CDs and vinyl, which also require materials to produce and energy to run. Do they require more or less energy and materials than the smartphone? What about the cables and other infrastructure that would need to be installed to provide communication services in the developing world had we not gone wireless? Technologies don’t occur in isolation. They occur in a historical, cultural and environmental context.

I agree 100% with you and the researchers: technology consumes resources and energy. But good research into the impact of devices like smartphones doesn’t stop at merely calculating the impact of the smartphone. It takes rare earth minerals to build a good wind turbine too, but it’s still preferable to a power plant fueled by coal. A good analysis will also calculate what the impact would have been had the diverse services now concentrated in the smartphone continued to be provided today in the same way they were in the 80s and 90s and on the same global scale as today’s technology. What would the carbon footprint be had we installed landlines in homes in the developing world and enabled the populations of these countries to buy cameras, film, and drive to the Fotomat every month to get their pictures developed? What would have been the impact if we had continued to do the same in the developed world? How does all that compare to the smartphone’s impact?

All technologies are “bad” for the environment in so far as they have an impact which requires effort to mitigate and repair. But not all impacts are created equal. To determine whether or not the smartphone represents some sort of progress, at least so far as carbon output is concerned, the analysis needs to also consider what the impact would have been without it. So far as I can tell, it didn’t take any likely or possible alternatives into account. You and the researchers conclude the smartphone is less efficient, but don’t say what you’re comparing it to in order to reach that conclusion. Less efficient than what?

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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